Can a Sound Bar Improve Your HDTV?

Updated October 3, 2016
LG Music Flow HS8 sound bar lifestyle shot.
The LG Music Flow HS8 wireless sound bar complements curved screens, and it streams music. (Photo courtesy of LG)

A sound bar can make your HDTV's audio clearer and more robust. It won't rival a surround sound system, but it also won't take up as much space.

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Ever watch your HDTV and feel unsatisfied by the sound? Maybe it seems like you need to adjust the volume too often, or concentrate really hard to hear the dialogue?

Experiences like those are common, and they've led many homeowners to buy a sound bar.

“It’s a fairly simple way to add enhanced sound to your TV, and the form tends to complement a flat screen,” says Gordon Deans of Gordon’s Light & Sound LLC in Sanford, Florida.

Greg Eisen of Acoustical Home Solutions in Elizabeth, Colorado, offers a more blunt take. “A sound bar is just a glorified speaker,” he laughs.

Eisen, who possesses more than 20 years of experience in home audio, says that not to dismiss sound bars, but to draw attention to why they exist: To address the deficiencies of HDTV speakers. 

Sound Bars and HDTVs: A Brief History

HDTVs have made great strides in picture quality compared to yesterday’s cathode ray tube (CRT) televisions. But in standardizing flat-screen displays, HDTVs lost the room needed for powerful speakers.

“Older box-type tube TVs had pretty good size speakers, and they sound pretty good,” says Eisen. “But with flat screens only having a 2- to 3-inch cavity, you can’t really get good sound from that.”

Samsung HW-J8500 sound bar set up in front of a curved HDTV.
Sound bars help compensate for the speaker limitations imposed by flat-panel design. (Photo courtesy of Samsung)

To compensate, many HDTVs adopted a design that’s still widely used. As Eisen describes it: “The speaker itself pumps sound out of the back, and it bounces sound off the wall to the viewer.” A similar though less common design points the speakers down.

“That isn’t always conducive to intelligibility,” Deans says. Wall mounting exacerbated the issue because it places the speakers closer to the wall than they’re meant to be.

“Wall mounting can make the sound terrible,” Eisen says.

Complicating things even further, some manufacturers saw sound as a place to save on costs.

“TV speakers seem to be the cheapest thing they can throw in there, with low power and limited frequency range,” Deans says.

Thus, many home entertainment brands developed sound bars to overcome the deficiencies of HDTV audio.

Benefits of a Sound Bar

Louder, Clearer Sound

Sound bars not only use bigger speakers than most HDTVs, they also generate more power. “Bigger speakers are usually better,” Deans says.

For a comparison, the speakers on this Samsung 4K UHD TV output up to 20 total watts of power, but one of Samsung’s most basic sound bar systems, the HW-K360 with wireless subwoofer, generates more than five times that at 130 total watts.

Of course, Deans points out that there’s more to sound bars than volume. "It's not about how loud they play, it's about how clear they are.”

Sound bars help with clarity, too. For example, many use a 2.1 configuration, which generally refers to two speakers in the bar (one left, one right) and one subwoofer (usually separate, but sometimes integrated).

LG LSB316 2.1-channel sound bar with wireless subwoofer.
LG's LSB316 2.1-channel sound bar produces up to 140 watts of power. Its wireless subwoofer can sit beneath a coffee table, beside a bookcase or in some other out-of-the-way spot. (Photo courtesy of LG)

“This [setup] allows smaller speakers to play the higher frequencies, the midrange and [treble], while the sub handles the lower end, the booms and rumbles,” Dean says. Thus, it creates a more balanced and dynamic sound than just two speakers alone.

“You definitely need a larger speaker to handle the lows,” Deans says. It’s not just for bass. Having a subwoofer dedicated to low frequencies can improve ambient sounds such as footsteps and wind, as well as the swell and fullness of background music.

Smaller Footprint Than a Surround Sound System

Sound bars take up less room and are easier to install than full home theaters. A sound bar with a wireless subwoofer, for example, comes with only two components to install.

Though many covet 5.1 and 7.1 home theater systems for their true surround sound, they take up more space. They also tend to cost more and require more technical know-how.

That can make them unpractical for smaller spaces such as bedrooms. In larger rooms, they can introduce a visual distraction.

JVC Dual Wireless Soundbar Home Theater System TH-BA3.
The JVC TH-BA3 home theater system strives to stage 5.1 surround sound by combining a three-channel sound bar, two wireless rear speakers and a subwoofer, but such a setup may require more room than some are comfortable with. (Photo courtesy of JVC America)

Music Streaming

Many sound bars wirelessly stream music from your smartphone, tablet or computer. Bluetooth is commonly supported. Some also support NFC, Wi-Fi and even Apple AirPlay.

And if you decide to install a whole-house or multi-room audio system later, the sound bar’s wireless capabilities make it easier to integrate. That’s a big reason why Eisen says he’s is a fan of Bose and Sonos.

Can a Sound Bar Produce Surround Sound?

“No sound bar gives you true surround sound,” Eisen says.

Deans agrees. “No, because you aren’t really surrounded. The bar may have multiple speakers, most do, but it’s not true surround sound.”

That’s because sound bars predominantly stage audio from the front. “So if a plane goes by [onscreen], you hear it from the front, but not the back,” says Eisen. A true surround sound system would follow the plane behind or beside you, simulating a fly-by.

Some sound bars, however, create the impression of surround sound, sometimes referred to as simulated or virtual surround sound.

Samsung HW-J8500 curved 9.1 sound bar with wireless subwoofer.
Samsung's HW-J8500 curved 9.1 sound bar with wireless subwoofer uses center-channel and side-firing speakers to simulate surround sound. (Photo courtesy of Samsung)

“Using processing, delay and the way the speakers are aimed in the sound bar, they can create what sounds like speakers behind you,” Deans says. “They are bouncing the sound around the room to fool your ears. Some of the higher-end bars do a pretty good job of it.”

For those looking to get as much surround sound-like performance as they can from a sound bar, Deans and Eisen recommend using a three-channel passive bar. Eisen suggests adding a subwoofer to make a 3.1 setup, describing it as, “Surround sound without the rear. Better than a standard sound bar.”

However, he points out that costs more than a standard sound bar, as you’ll need to add a receiver. Eisen and Deans agree that if you plan to eventually upgrade to a true surround system, whether with a home theater in a box (HTiB) or through installing ceiling and in-wall speakers, then it’s probably best to skip the sound bar and save your money.

Should a Professional Install Your Sound Bar?

For a basic setup, no. According to Eisen and Deans, setting a sound bar on an entertainment center and then connecting it to the TV is simple. Most homeowners can do it themselves.

Wall mounting, however, is a different story. “If you want a clean mount, hire a pro,” Deans says.

He continues. “All those pretty pictures you see with no cables are a joke. Sound bars need power. And most of them are too thin to hide an outlet behind them. It's unsafe to run a power cable in the wall. And try to hide 6 feet of power cord behind a 2 1/2-inch high sound bar that sits a quarter-inch off the wall. Not happening.”

Do you own a sound bar? Tell us about it in the comments section below.

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